I can’t tell you how often people say to me, “I’ve tried to meditate but I just can’t.” When I ask why not, the answer is usually something like, “Well, I just can’t stop thinking.” It seems like the real issue here is not that all these people can’t meditate, but that there is some inaccuracy in the popular definition of meditation, some fundamental misconception about what people actually “do” in meditation. In this post, I’d like to dispel some myths about meditation as well as provide a more accurate explanation not only of what meditation is, but of what the practical benefits are.
First, it’s important to understand that saying “I practice meditation” is about as specific as saying “I practice yoga.” There are about as many different types of meditation as there are styles of yoga; thus, there are a number of vastly different practices which people commonly refer to as “meditation.” One of my first pop culture images of meditation (still my favorite) was Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl.
Chanting “Om” , as in the video clip, is one type of meditation using a mantra. Mantras are sacred sounds or prayers which help focus the mind; there are a wide variety of mantras, some short and some long, in different languages and traditions. A similar practice, which uses vowel sounds as opposed to words, is often called toning. The practice of chanting mantras or toning does several things: first, it creates a sound wave, a powerful vibration which can affect the physical being; second, it creates a focal point, which is useful for letting go of stray thoughts; third, chanting activates energy channels (or nadis) through the placement of the tongue on the roof of the mouth. Many practitioners use a mala (string of beads) as a way of counting repetitions of the mantra. In that sense, meditating with a mantra has some similarity to the Catholic practice of praying the rosary. (By the way, incense is not required.)
Some meditation practices are silent. Either they do not include a mantra, or the mantra may be repeated internally as a way of focusing the mind. Meditation practices which do not use a mantra often have some other focal point, such as a candle flame. Other practices use the breath, or a particular breathing pattern, as the focal point. Still other practices use a concept or intention as a focal point. There are also some traditions that use movement as meditation (such as walking meditation, for example).
The point of meditation, so to speak, is to develop observational awareness, to cultivate the inner observer. Sometimes this is called “mindfulness.” You might be happy to learn it is not necessary to stop thinking in order to meditate. It is only necessary to be patient with yourself, to cultivate your ability to focus, and to engage in the process of training your mind. To that end, a couple of techniques may prove useful to the novice:
- Regard thoughts during meditation as clouds in the sky, passing with the breeze. Or as cars on the highway, passing by your field of vision. Notice them, but do not become attached to them. Do not try to follow them, or be angry with them for being there.
- Develop an attitude of loving-kindness toward yourself. It is almost like training a puppy. Certainly, you will lose focus and you may wander off after stray thoughts. It is only important to bring your focus back each and every time you are aware that you have wandered off, without judging or berating yourself. Consistent correction and patience are key.
The practice of meditation also seeks to develop a present moment orientation, discussed in popular books such as Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now which was featured on Oprah. This can be tremendously empowering, as so many of us sacrifice our energy and sometimes our very well-being to ruminating on the past or giving free rein to our anxieties about the many uncertainties of the future.
More about this topic in part II of this post.